On the Freedom to Be With Emotional Pain

This essay was originally published on March 4th, 2015. It has since been edited.

On the days that are especially tough, like today—when I’m feeling weird or anxious or overly analytical about the seemingly smallest things; when my body aches and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m still healing from psychiatric drugs or just because I slept wrong; when my mind is working hard to take me over, to riddle me with insecurity and doubt and questions about the future; when my instincts tell me to curl up in a ball and take a break from it all (which I often do, and boy does it help)—I remind myself that all of this, all of this struggle and tension and pressure and doubt, all of it exists because of the simple, beautiful reason that I am a human being living in a society bent on convincing me I can’t believe in myself.

Whether it’s the mental health system—which encompasses far more than just Psychiatry and the Pharmaceutical Industry; it’s Psychology and Social Work and the whole Therapeutic Industry, too—or the “Beauty” Industry, or the Media Industry, or the Education Industry, these powerful sociopolitical forces thrive by telling us stories about who we are, what we should become, what our bodies are worth, what our suffering means, and how to be “normal” (in other words, how to slip smoothly into the mainstream current of the status quo). But more than that, they thrive not only because of these stories they tell, but because we believe so deeply in them. We believe so deeply in these stories because we’ve been trained to be terribly afraid of who we are, and especially of the dark facets of ourselves.

When I let this reflection really wash over me and sink in, i sit listening to my pain in life beyond the mental health system. I find that it opens up in me a kind of presence with myself that I could never access in all those years I spent as a mental patient— in fact, that I had no idea even existed. It’s the kind of presence that emerges when you let fall away all those stories you once believed in so deeply: that your struggle means there’s something wrong inside of you; that only therapy and drugs and behavior modification will fix your brokenness and make you fit back in; that you must rid yourself of the dark parts of who you are. Once those stories sit unwoven at your feet, it’s just you, in this moment, as you are, free. Free from those stories. Free from those boxes, especially the bright, glistening ones that spew out promises of happiness and functionality if you can just accept that you’re a “sick” person in need of “treatment”.

I should say: it’s not that in this space of freedom the pain suddenly goes away. This, really, is the whole point. For I’ve learned since becoming an ex-patient that the purpose of life isn’t to be free from pain, but to believe in yourself in the midst of it. It’s to know that in the deepest part of yourself there’s a reason for the struggle that’s meaningful and must be listened to.

When I listened to my pain today, it told me a great deal.  It told me:

—You spent fourteen years of your life trapped in a system of “care” that took away any authentic sense of yourself, and any connection to a life of rooting and connection and purpose. It destroyed your sexuality, your creativity, your physical health, and your hope. Of course you’re baffled about this thing called life some days… You’re only four years away from that prison. You’re still learning how to be in your body, in your mind, in this life.

—Even though it’s been 4.5 years since you got off all those psychiatric drugs, your entire body—not just your central nervous system—is still working hard to heal. You were on them through your adolescence and twenties—your most formative developmental years, for god’s sake. Be gentle with yourself.

—The further you move from a psychiatrized existence and the clearer your mind becomes, the more you’re realizing the depth and breadth of the crisis our humanity is in—financial, environmental, social, political, cultural. Why on earth would you feel anything other than anxiety, fear, sadness, and frustration about this unfolding awakening you’re having, and the powerlessness you feel in it? 

When I was a mental patient, I’d never have been able to sit with myself long enough to have these reflections. I was so drugged that I could barely even think or feel. I was so terrified of my pain that my automatic reflex was to call my shrink or take a PRN of Seroquel or Klonopin. That was all I had… Pill bottles and paid professionals. Locked wards, too. Total dependence on the outside world to keep me “safe”, to keep me alive. I swallowed that story whole, and told it to myself for fourteen years.

Here I sit, on the other side of this writing, feeling more centered in myself than I was at the start. I’m still hurting, still afraid, still a bit baffled by just how overwhelming this post-Psychiatry existence can feel to me some days, but my heart is full of an aching recognition of beauty: I am alive, I am whole as I am, and I am connected to this world. My struggle is the evidence.

Finding the Meaning in Suffering: My Experience with Coming off Psychiatric Drugs (in a Nutshell)

This essay was originally published on April 23rd, 2013. It has since been edited.

In September 2010, I came off the last of my “med regimen”— lithium, Lamictal, Abilify, Effexor, Ativan, and a PRN of Seroquel— and I said goodbye to a life of orange pill bottles and phone calls to CVS pharmacy, of dosage increases and new scripts to be filled, of the floral pill bag that shook like a maraca, and of the complete and total dependency on inanimate chemical capsules to define what I felt, how I thought, and who I was.  After over ten years on psychotropic drugs, it had been an agonizing five months of tapering— I realize today that my psychopharmacologist likely had no idea what he was doing, for a rate of one drug a month is essentially going “cold turkey”— and I would continue on for the next year and a half in the midst of daily physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain [for more on this, see my Madness Radio interview]. In the midst of this suffering, however, I was able to put my head on the pillow at night knowing that these pills were out of me.  Gone, never to enter my bloodstream again.  A decade of daily psychotropic drugs had circulated through my veins, seeping into my organs, my brain, my hair, my skin, my nails.  A decade of daily psychotropic drugs had successfully disconnected me from a sense of self, physical health, emotional balance, and social connectedness.  A decade of daily psychotropic drugs had nearly succeeded in killing the last scraps of my human spirit, and me, along with it.

On that brisk fall day over two and a half years ago, against the wishes of my “treaters”, and in the midst of hell on earth, I reclaimed myself.  My Self.  By no means has a second of it been easy, but it’s certainly been the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

As time’s gone on, particularly in the second and third years of my post-psychiatry life, I have slowly but surely healed from the trauma of my psychiatric “treatment”.  It’s been a long road, fraught with physical pain, unparalleled emotional upheaval, gut-wrenching anxiety, and paralyzing fear.  In the midst of my worst moments— whether it was the hours upon hours spent lying frozen in fetal position on the sofa, staring blankly at the wall, disconnected from the world; or wondering if I’d ever be able to hold down a job, a relationship, or even the daily task of showering and changing out of sweats; or looking at healthy people functioning in the world around me and feeling baffled by how the hell they could possibly be doing it; or wanting to rip my skin off from the debilitating anxiety, and shut my head down to silence the endless chatter; or crying when I didn’t want to cry, and laughing when I didn’t want to laugh; or feeling like the only alien on planet Earth— I clung on to the one and only reason why I’d started my journey off of psychiatric drugs in the first place, my life preserver, keeping me afloat: I was determined to find myself, the Self I’d lost as a fourteen-year old to a “Bipolar” label, and a life sentence of polypharmacy.  This spark of fire, however small it might have been in the beginning, outweighed all the pain, and allowed me to keep trudging forward.  I was absolutely, 100% determined to find myself, no matter what the cost.

As a person who’s left behind psychiatry, I have learned that the least fruitful path to follow— for me, at least— is one of self-victimization.  I served a long sentence that began early in my life and came with the shackles of numerous psychiatric labels and at least nineteen psychotropic drugs.  I could say that I had my life taken away from me by the mental health system, but I simply don’t believe that anymore, for only in finding peace with that chapter of my life’s story, and acceptance of all the suffering, the isolation, the hopelessness, the desperation, the self-sabotage, the self-destruction and the nine years of daily thoughts of suicide, can I say that I’m truly free.  I decided about a year into my post-psychiatry life that continuing to think of myself as a victim would mean keeping myself dependent on this institution, locking myself up behind its bars as an emotional slave.  I turned my deep-seated resentment and rage at what happened to me into passionate and productively channeled anger, and suddenly, I took off, shooting forward into a new life that continues to unfold in truly amazing ways now that I’m no longer held back by those toxic emotions, and, of course, the toxic psychotropic drugs.

As I’ve written before, and however backwards it might sound, today, I am grateful to those doctors, even to the first psychiatrist who threw me on Depakote and Prozac as a young teenager.  I’m grateful to the locked wards and the internalized oppression and the security-blanket dependency on my “meds” and their numbing and disconnecting effects, because all of it has allowed me to become who I am today: a thirty-year old woman with a life ahead of her, who feels the full spectrum of human feelings and an authentic sense of self and purpose.  Had I never found Anatomy of an Epidemic, had I never felt that tiny spark of fire in my belly that told me to take my life back and stand up against my seven-person “treatment team” when they disagreed with my desire to come off psych drugs, and had I never been determined with every ounce of my being to move through all the pain that came along with it, not only would I not have this exciting life ahead of me, but I wouldn’t be alive at all.  I know this to be true.

I do not pretend to know exactly how all people should come off psychiatric drugs— nor do I believe that there’s one singular methodology for how to do it. What I lay claim to is my own experience, my own lessons learned from constructive choices and destructive ones, and from the intuition I’ve only recently begun to tap into since healing from the trauma of “treatment.”  What never ceases to amaze me is how vast the experiences are when it comes to coming off psych drugs— I’ve heard stories about successful cold turkey withdrawal with no symptoms, and ones about unsuccessful slow tapers.  I’ve heard stories of those who’ve successfully come off in months, and others who did it in years.  I’ve heard of people who found tremendous benefit from supplements, and others who never took a single dose of one and succeeded anyways.  I know some people who’ve thrived from strict nutritional protocols, and others who couldn’t care less about cutting out certain foods.  Exercise, no exercise.  Yoga, no yoga.  Meditation, no meditation.  I know people who were on psych drugs for many, many years, and have successfully come off, and others who went on for a year or less, and struggle tremendously with the withdrawal.  There is simply no one way to come off psychiatric drugs, and no one withdrawal trajectory.

While I certainly agree that the thousands of anecdotal stories out there suggest that a person’s odds of success are increased greatly by slowly tapering off [you can learn more about what that looks like by visiting The Withdrawal Project here], that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.  I came off of five psychotropic drugs in five months; based on what we know in the layperson withdrawal community, this is much too fast of a taper.  A wise woman, active in the Psychiatric Survivor movement, once shared with me that tapering off psych drugs very quickly, or stopping them cold turkey, is like Russian roulette— you just don’t know what’s next in the chamber.  Maybe my withdrawal experience would have been much shorter and less agonizing had my doctor brought me off in a year and a half or two, instead of five months.  Maybe had I been ten years older, I would have struggled more.  All I can say is that my journey went the way it did, and here I am today.  I simply tested out methods and strategies for getting through the great difficulties, often times accidentally, and bumbled around until I found my path.  I established my own threshold for pain; what I can bear, someone else can’t, and vice versa.  I’ve heard many say that when it comes to the world of self-help, it’s important to “take what you want, and leave the rest.”  That’s been a helpful motto for me to live by, especially as it relates to the topic of coming off psych drugs.

There are many of us out there who work incredibly hard to support people who are coming off of psychotropic drugs.  Among us are ex-patients and psychiatric survivors, medical doctors, psychologists, social workers, counselors, holistic/alternative practitioners, and family members.  You can find us in coffee shops, online forums, facilities, clinics, private offices, via Skype, on the phone, or holding banners at protests and yelling in the megaphone.  Each of us brings a particular nugget of wisdom, inherently subjective, and not for everyone.  There are books, articles, forums, chat rooms, websites, and presentations devoted to the topic of psychiatric drugs and how to come off of them.  Each is simply one way to do it.

When I began the process of tapering off of psychotropic drugs, I had none of these resources.  Sure, I had that huge “treatment team” who met about me on a regular basis and worked hard to ensure I relied on them to “manage” my life, but other than one social worker, a wonderful man whom I’ll never forget and always be grateful to, I felt zero emotional support from the mental health system as I came off.  In fact, from looking at my medical records at that time, it appears that my psychotherapist didn’t even realize that my psychopharmacologist was managing my taper, because she reported that I was “non-compliant” and came off my “meds” against medical advice.  But I digress…  My psychopharmacologist had agreed to bring me off four of the five psychiatric drugs (not Lamictal, which he claimed had been proven effective for “Borderline personality disorder” and thus I needed to stay on it), and this was only because the “team” had decided I’d been “misdiagnosed” Bipolar and really, was just an alcoholic and a Borderline!  How interesting!  I met with that doctor once a month as he decreased the four drugs, and I came off the fifth on my own, without having read a single paragraph on how to taper off.  Never once did I connect with a provider about the pain I was going through; I used my psychopharmacologist to taper me off, and nothing more.  This was my experience: not right, not wrong, just mine.  There are certainly providers out there who practice in entirely different, more humanistic ways, and who are true supports for people coming off.  I just simply never crossed paths with one during my time in the mental health system.

The bulk of my support came from family, and from the sober community I was very active in at the time.  Having a space in which I could express my pain every day and listen to others do the same, even if their pain wasn’t necessarily connected to psychiatric drug withdrawal, was incredibly beneficial to me, and I believe I wouldn’t have made it through without that support.  In part, I bumbled through the first six months or so believing that the excruciating pain I felt was “early sobriety” from alcohol; I had no idea until many months in that it was less my body healing from alcohol and more my body’s desperate attempt to heal itself from all those years of psychotropic drug injury.  At the end of the day, though, that community worked for me because while the drug was different, the emotional pain was the same.  I was also lucky enough to be living with extended family, to have no job (other than being a professional patient, a career I became quite good at!), and to not have the worries of rent, children, or paying the bills.  In short, I was incredibly lucky, and incredibly privileged, to be so taken care of.  I look back on this today and feel gratitude from the bottom of my heart.

While I was able to withdraw in large part because of the reasons mentioned above— unconditional love, a de-stressed environment, and a space of mutual support, among many things— in truth, my success was not because of how quickly or slowly I tapered, the order in which I came off the drugs, my nutrition (or lack thereof), my exercise (or lack thereof), my sleep (or lack thereof), or the people from whom I sought support.  There was something much deeper I had to search for first, something I couldn’t find in an office or on the internet or in a textbook or in a church basement or in the words or wisdom of another person.  For me, what helped me successfully come off of over a decade of polypharmacy was the Why.  Why do I want to come off psychiatric drugs?  What did it mean to me?  What was it that I was searching for?  After I connected to this deep sense of meaning in the “coming off” process, those factors mentioned above— in other words, the How of the withdrawal—carried me through, and brought me slowly back to health.  Discovering why I wanted to come off psych drugs was like putting the key in my ignition and turning it on; the method and the means by which I did it were simply the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake.  Had I not found that key, the process would have been mindless and empty, only about tapering, measuring, calculating, adjusting, so on and so forth.  Likely, I wouldn’t have been able to continue, had that been the case.  When I really connected to the Why of it, I could face the suffering that followed.  As I say often to others, in my experience of coming off psychotropic drugs, the only way out was through.

While I’m really just scratching the surface here with all I could say about my experience of coming off psychiatric drugs, I’ll leave you with what I believe, in my experience, are the key components to a successful withdrawal.  You can take what you want, and leave the rest:

  1. While it’s important to be well-informed about psychiatric drug withdrawal, too much knowledge— and too much fear— can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I bumbled through my withdrawal with little to no knowledge of what was ahead, and I actually believe that this helped me tremendously.  I didn’t obsessively read up on withdrawal and fill myself with fear about all the horrible things that could happen to me, and thus, I didn’t set myself up for defeat.  I think there’s a fine balance here between knowing too little, and too much, and it’s a line that each person has to decide for him/herself.

  2. There are no universal experts on psychiatric drug withdrawal, because each person’s journey is so different.  While it can be informative and helpful to learn from others who’ve been through this process before you, and there are people out there doing very good and determined work to bring people off psych drugs, you are the only expert on yourself and your experience of the world.

  3. The mind plays tricks on you.  On a regular basis, my mind wanted me to give up, to wave the white flag of surrender.  In those moments, I reconnected myself to my sense of purpose— to that determination to find out who I was off of psych drugs— and I did my best to coexist with my thoughts, anxiety, and fear without letting them take me over.  It was in times like these that I did my best to reach out to a friend or family member for support.

  4. Take the time to understand how your body is impacted by nutrition.  I was never a believer in the power of nutrition, and this has been a profoundly beneficial discovery for me.  Cutting gluten out of my diet, however hard it initially was, has done wonders for my mind and body; cutting out processed sugars and processed foods in general, except for the occasional splurge of course, has proven just as helpful.

  5. Remove whatever stressors you have control over to create as de-stressed an environment as possible.  For me, this meant staying free from “illicit” drugs and alcohol, from unhealthy or traumatizing relationships, and from responsibilities that I wasn’t required to take on.  My body was (and often times still is) incredibly sensitive to the environment I’m in, and thus, managing whatever I did have control over was important for me.

  6. Listen to your body, however hard that may be.   Psych drugs disconnected me from my body and desensitized me in so many ways, so this was certainly a difficult process for me.  I know today that my body is always communicating with me, if I just take the time to feel what it’s saying.

  7. Surround yourself with unconditional support, whether that means family, friends, providers, healers, or some other type of supportive community.  I’ve learned that no matter how isolating or painful the journey may be, you never have to be alone.

  8. When you’re losing hope in yourself, and feeling yourself sinking in the quicksand of withdrawal, place your faith for the time being in those who’ve walked the path before you.  There were so many times when I wondered if I could keep going, when any faith left in myself was so pushed down that I could no longer feel it.  On those days, I thought about others who’d walked the same path before me, feeling the same pain and the same fear, and who were no longer mired in the suffering anymore.  Faith in them was my way of having faith in myself.

  9. More than anything, connect to the meaning behind why you are coming off psychiatric drugs.  This is the seed from which everything grew for me— both the thorns and the blossoming buds.

 

I could keep going, and going, and going.  For your sake, I’ll stop here, and leave you with a quote from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that was instrumental to me as I came off of psychotropic drugs.  It sums up everything I’ve said here, in one beautiful sentence.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Indeed, we’re all in this together, and in the midst of the often tremendous suffering lies freedom.

~ ~ ~

To learn in great detail about how to prepare carefully for the psychiatric drug withdrawal journey and taper off medications as safely and successfully as possible, visit Inner Compass Initiative’s The Withdrawal Project, and work through its step-by-step, detailed, self-directed Companion Guide to Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal.

On the Urge to Take My Life by Suicide, and My Decision to Take It Back From the Mental Health System Instead

This essay was written on September 9th, 2013. It has since been edited.

Tomorrow, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. According to Wikipedia, its mission is “to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides, with various activities around the world.”

I am alive today in the most intense, sometimes painful, always beautiful of ways, and one of the many reasons I credit for my life is this: I am a failed product of “Suicide Prevention.”

For this, I am eternally grateful. While this statement may sound like a confusing paradox, I’d like to explain what I mean.

My long relationship to suicide began after I met the mental health system as a fourteen-year old and ended when I found freedom from it thirteen years later, in 2010. My suicidal experiences and I shared something akin to a passionate, painful love affair that grew stronger over time. It was a relationship that I both yearned for and loathed, relied on and desperately tried to pull myself away from, but because I was convinced that the roots of my suicidal urges rested in bad brain chemistry, I felt powerless to do anything about them.

Indeed, after a while, I simply accepted my “chronic suicidality” as part of what it meant to be “mentally ill.” I also accepted and eventually embraced that it was only a matter of time before I took my own life; that this was the inevitable conclusion of being “treatment-resistant Bipolar.” I remember reading a write-up of some Rorschach test results which declared I had a “death wish” and was a “high risk” for suicide; I nodded in agreement, pushing my lips together in grim acknowledgement that this was my fate and that, tragically, even the best treatment in the world wouldn’t stop me from meeting it.

For many years, my thoughts of suicide kept me living. I always have my death, I used to say to myself. I can live another day knowing this. Visual images of my final moments soothed me, and I found relief in the idea of eternal sleep. Like a dark angel, the knowledge of my future suicide sat perched next to my ear, whispering its promises to me. Life passed this way for a long time, the seconds ticking by, days and weeks and years of going through the motions of a meaningless, numb “Bipolar” life, until I reached the end of the road.

After years of receiving elaborate and extensive psychiatric intervention, I determined that I was a lost cause, and allowed the whisper of my fate to crescendo into a loud and determined call. On a cold November morning in 2008, at the age of twenty-five, I made the calm, rational, peaceful decision to end my terminally “ill” life, and I acted on it.

I feel a deep, human obligation to talk openly about my attempted suicide and the years of suicidal thoughts that led me to, and subsequently followed, that decision, because I see my once-profound urge to die as not only the most significant consequence of my internalization of a “mentally ill” identity, but also a crucial step towards the profound realization of how much I actually yearned to live. Leading up to my suicide attempt were years of shame, guilt, and secrecy; of fake smiles and spark-less eyes; of believing so deeply that I had no agency over my “illness” that each day would just be a fight against myself; of feeling hopelessly dependent on my doctors and therapists and parents and the hospitals I kept checking myself into; of knowing no other way to understand myself than as a manifestation of psychiatric pathology; of ever-increasing iatrogenic dysfunction as one prescription became two, became three, became four, became five, while believing all along it was my “disease” causing me such turmoil; of feeling completely disconnected from myself and from the world; of finding peace of mind only after fantasizing about my death. My relationship to the mental health system turned me into a living, breathing ghost, left with only one logical next step to take.

Although I don’t remember what followed in the days after I slipped into a coma that November day nearly five years ago, I will never forget the quietness that washed over me after I swallowed the last handful of my pills, closing one eye, then the other, to focus my blurred and fading vision on finishing my suicide note.  Tears are pushing themselves out from the corners of my eyes as I type these words because of how real that moment still feels. I will never forget that peace—I never want to forget that peace—because it’s a testament to the totality of hopelessness that results from a psychiatric label and everything that follows.

During my “Bipolar” years, there was a tremendous amount of energy expended by a tremendous amount of varied “mental health” practitioners in an effort to prevent my suicide. I was taught to see my urge to end the life I felt hopelessly trapped in as evidence of how “ill” I was, and as a medical problem that could only be resolved by compliance to “treatment”, and by the thoughtful strategies of the “experts” around me. At night, when my suicidal thoughts seemed to demand action, I did what I was told and called my psychiatrist so that she could prevent the crisis from escalating. (On more than one occasion, the advice was to “Take extra Seroquel,” and I remember feeling beyond lucky that she’d stay on the phone with me until I passed out into drugged sleep, scared as I was of having to lie there alone, trapped in my head.) I was committed to preventing my suicide, and the psychiatric infrastructure around me was, too. This commitment led me right to death’s door.

There’s no denying that my relationship to the mental health system was a complicated one because of how deeply I came to believe in its tenets. It’s hard to make sense of the fact that while this system introduced me to a plethora of reasons that sparked in me the urge to die, it also carried me along the way, determined to prevent me from acting out on the hopelessness that its labels and “treatment” instilled in me. Locked wards and heavy polypharmacy gave me hope, however false and misguided it may have ended up being. It’s not an easy thing to write this, for the values and principles I live by today go firmly against the institutionalization of a human being, especially a human being who’s suffering, hopeless, and questioning the meaning of life. It’s not easy to write this because I see, as I continue to heal from the physical, cognitive, and emotional trauma of over ten years of daily psychiatric drug consumption, how deadened, numbed, detached, and destabilized I was by psychopharmaceutical “treatment”. But there’s no denying that while I was an indoctrinated mental patient, I stayed alive in the short term because I continued to trust in the God of Psychiatry, and to surrender myself to its power, which, unbeknownst to me, was stripping me slowly of my life.

In the end, psychiatric intervention and “treatment” did nothing to quiet my suicidal thoughts, nor did it play any role in cultivating the unquenchable inner fire to live and thrive that I feel today. What my relationship to the mental health system did for me—and I am truly grateful to it for this—was establish a life not worth living, and lead me as far down its path as I was capable of dragging myself. It was a life of accumulating hospital scrubs and rubber-soled socks and DSM diagnoses and pill bottles, medical records and outpatient programs and locked wards and “treatment team” members. But it was also a life that led me to my awakening—whether determined by luck or destiny, I’m still not sure—which began when I found myself face-to-face with Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic in a Vermont bookstore in May 2010.

The rest is history, so they say. Actually, the rest is this moment, right now, as I write about who I am, and what I’m not, and as I sit back and reflect on my life today, which is full of meaning and purpose. A life that I have faith in, and hope for. A life that I could never imagine ending. Had I never had the opportunity to awaken and free myself from the mental health system’s grasp, I am sure that I would never be where I am today. I am sure that it was only a matter of time before I stopped believing the promises it made to me and concluded, again, that better than sleep on a sterilized plastic mattress was sleep I’d never awaken from.

The “Mental Health” Industry—and American society as a whole, for it seems we’ve reached a point at which we look only to those with letters after their names to speak as authoritative “experts” on the causes of and solutions for the human urge to die—has infused suicide with a deep, oppressive fear. Much of this industry’s fear is self-centered in origin: it is fear manifested as liability, risk, and responsibility by those in positions of clinical power. “I just can’t let you leave the ER, I’m afraid, as you’re a safety risk.” Or, “My license is at stake if I allow you to go home after sharing what you did with me. I’ll be forced to make a phone call if you won’t get a crisis evaluation by choice.”

Missing from this “Suicide Prevention” framework is acknowledgement of the agency of the person considering suicide; of the dignity of risk and choice; of the human legitimacy of thoughts about life and death, especially when life has lost its meaning; of the right to feel and believe what one desires, however dark and scary that may be to those around her.

Missing from this, most of all, is faith in the human condition and our capacity as human beings to survive and move through profound suffering and hopelessness. When an entire system of “care” is founded upon this lack of faith, as today’s system is, it makes it hard for those reaching out for help to have any, either. In fact, I believe that it’s this collective loss of faith and infiltration of fear that lies at the root of America’s rapidly increasing suicide rates.

In my own experience, my shell of a “Bipolar” self had become so thin and permeable that the “safety” and “risk” narrative of doctor after doctor who sat perched before me with crossed legs and furrowed brows, determined to keep me alive, became my own. Full of so much suffering, and convinced I was at the mercy of “my disease”, I concluded that they were right: that I couldn’t be “safe” with myself, or trust myself. That my “chronic suicidality” was evidence of how much help I needed from outside sources.

Soon enough, I began to yearn for the authority and decision-making capacity of those around me, for their assertions of power over my dysfunctional life. I remember often feeling like a wild, dangerous animal, desperate to be confined, contained, and controlled. Eventually, I came to see one-on-ones in the ER, fifteen-minute checks on the locked ward, and large bags of pill bottles as the only valid evidence of my suffering, and as the only potential cure for it. I was just so damn afraid of myself, of my mind, of my emotions, and of what my life had become because of “being Bipolar.” And my “treaters”, blinded both by their own unquestionable faith in Psychiatry’s tenets and by their deep-seated fears of liability, were incapable of seeing anything other than an end objective of preventing my suicide. There wasn’t room for anything else to matter.

When the hand of fear grabs hold of the topic of suicide, it pushes everything else aside and leaves no space to explore. Fear drowns out curiosity, faith, honesty, empathy, and the opportunity to listen with open ears and hearts. It forces an immediacy that simply can’t allow for the lapse of time, for uncertainty, or for the unknown. Fear breeds control, and whether or not this control is welcomed or resisted, the clinician’s agency almost always trumps all. At the heart of it, fear of suicide strips away the humanity of life and death, leaving in its place a sterile, objectified “problem” or “symptom” that allows for only one course of action: prompt and effective intervention and prevention, usually via evaluations, diagnoses, locked wards, and prescription pads. Sometimes even by volts of electricity sent through the brain.

When suicide is seen as something to be prevented, honest listening — which, to me, means listening without needing to act and without needing to find an immediate answer — is deemed irresponsible or even dangerous. Doctors are trained to see preemptive intervention as the only “responsible” course of action: to quickly diagnose and ramp up “treatment”, which, of course, only further buries the designated “safety risk” in The System. This was my experience, and I went along willingly, because I believed I needed to.

Never once was my urge to die seen as something meaningful, as something to be explored and faced, not “prevented”. Never once was I presented the opportunity to take the time to listen to it, or to consider that if I did, I might discover that on the flipside of my urge to die was an urge to live, just in a very different way. I never once had the space to consider that something deep inside of me was telling me that a “Bipolar” life was not the life I was meant for, and that beyond the confines of the mental health system lay true peace of mind, and true freedom. Trapped in this system as I was, none of these paths were open to me, or even visible.

So what do you say about all those people out there who want to kill themselves right now, in this moment? Some of you might be asking, Where should they go?

My answer is that I don’t have the answer, nor do I pretend to. But where it starts, I believe, is in re-humanizing suicidal experiences, and in embracing them as important and meaningful messages that need listening to, not running away from. I’ve learned this along my own journey, and by listening to the wisdom of other suicide attempt survivors like David Webb. The answer to this question starts also in the creation of alternative spaces in which people can talk about their suicidal experiences without fear of incarceration, or silencing, or pathologizing. (These kinds of spaces have developed in Massachusetts, where the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community is running ‘Alternatives to Suicide’ groups and has a respite, Afiya, which offers non-pathologizing support, and they’re starting to spread nationwide.)

The answer, for me, was to take my life back from the mental health system. In doing so, the urge to take my life from the world fell away.

Tomorrow, the international community commits itself to preventing suicide. I can only hope that those of us who consider ourselves failed products of “Suicide Prevention”—for I have a feeling I’m not the only one—do whatever we can to share our stories to encourage the de-pathologization of suicide, and, as David Webb so poignantly says, to foster the idea that suicidal feelings should be treated with dignity and respect, and not seen as problems to be annihilated or “prevented.” I’ve come to believe that suicide is an open-ended question to be explored with trust, and with open ears and hearts. When we as a human family choose to see the urge to die as a human response to a world — which is full of trauma, isolation, discrimination, and dehumanization, whether resulting from Psychiatry or from some other oppressive form of social power — I truly believe that life will begin to glisten more brightly with the potential for meaning, connection, purpose, and peace. Life will increasingly become more worth living, and more worth believing in. At least, this has been my experience.